New York Times
How to Talk to Iran
September 17, 2009
GENEVA — The five-page Iranian platform for talks with major powers — “Cooperation for Peace, Justice and Progress” — has been much mocked as evasive blather, but is in fact an instructive document that suggests the endeavor may not be hopeless. It bears close scrutiny.
True, it makes no mention of Iran’s nuclear program, the elephant in the room, although it does talk of “promoting the universality” of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, of which Iran is a member but nuclear-armed Israel is not.
What the proposal provides is a useful guide to the Islamic Republic’s psychology and preoccupations, which find echo elsewhere. When Iran calls for “multilateralism” and “progress free from double standards for all nations,” it reflects thinking in Moscow and Beijing, one reason why ever getting Russia and China behind meaningful sanctions against Iran is a pipe dream: more on that later.
President Obama was right to accept the platform as an entrée to talks that will begin Oct. 1. I argued strongly for engagement with Iran after a February visit. During a second stay in Tehran, appalled by the brutal repression of protesters I witnessed after the June 12 election, I said Obama had to allow a decent interval on outreach. Three months have passed. That’s a short pause, but matters are pressing and this is real toe-in-the-water stuff.
The president is right for many reasons. The 30-year American-Iranian psychosis is a dangerous, logic-lite hangover. When Obama gathered his Iran advisers after the June election to review intelligence, the slim pickings were slim enough to prompt a presidential “That all you got?” Ignorance breeds treacherous incomprehension.
The president is right because only creative diplomacy can head off the onrushing Iranian uranium enrichment (8,000 inefficient centrifuges and counting); because closer relations with the West represent the best long-term hope for reform in Iran; because Iran is negotiating from the relative weakness of post-June-12 revolutionary disunity; and because the strong U.S. interest lies in preventing an Israeli attack on Muslim Persia. (That’s also in Israel’s interest, by the way; the Arabs are already a handful.)
There’s a lot of verbiage — some that Orwell would have seized on — in the Iranian “package,” but that’s just the way of things in Iran. Like many much-conquered countries, not least Italy, Iran loves artifice, the dressing-up of truth in elaborate layers. It will always favor ambiguity over clarity. This is a nation whose conventions include the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” (hypocrisy dressed up as flattery), and one that is no stranger to “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative.
These traits are worth recalling. Gary Sick, the Carter administration official who negotiated the American hostages’ release, told me that immediately before the critical breakthrough he received a voluminous and preposterous Iranian “proposal” that almost led Carter to walk away. It proved a sideshow with a couple of useful nuggets buried in the outpourings.
There are nuggets here, too. Iran’s deep sense of past injustice is evident in repeated use of words like “equitable.” It’s worth recalling that the stop-go Iranian nuclear program began in the 1980s, when Iran was being gassed by Iraq, whose chemical arsenal owed much to Europe and the United States. Such truths are no less true for being unpalatable.
No nuclear endgame that fails to address Iran’s victim syndrome through some degree of highly monitored empowerment is conceivable to me.
Other nuggets include Iran’s call for a “rule-based and equitable oversight function” of the International Atomic Energy Agency — I.A.E.A. oversight is exactly what the United States and its allies must reinforce; language on the Palestinian issue (“all-embracing peace, lasting security”) that is moderate by Iranian standards; and a “readiness to embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations.”
This is an ugly moment for diplomacy; the clampdown in Iran continues. But then nor were the situations in the Soviet Union or China propitious when breakthroughs were achieved. America must continue to press for the release of political prisoners and respect of human rights in Iran.
In the end, talks are essential because there is no viable alternative. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said recently that “now is the time to start harsh sanctions against Iran.” But Iran is inured to sanctions after years of living with them and knows that its years of cultivating Russia and China (no mention of the plight of Chechen or Uighur Muslims) will pay. Iran is in effect a Russian ally.
I cannot see any deal that will not at some point trade controlled Iranian enrichment on its soil against insistence that Iran accept the vigorous inspections of the I.A.E.A. Additional Protocol and a 24/7 I.A.E.A. presence. The time is approaching for the United States and its allies to abandon “zero enrichment” as a goal — it’s no longer feasible — and concentrate on how to exclude weaponization, cap enrichment and ensure Iran believes the price for breaking any accord will be heavy.
As a general rule, the more American-Iranian psychosis can be assuaged, the more favorable any accord will be. So read between the lines.